Syrians dread impact of Caesar Act sanctions aimed at Assad

Syrians dread impact of Caesar Act sanctions aimed at Assad
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Syrians dread impact of Caesar Act sanctions aimed at Assad
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Updated 12 August 2020

Syrians dread impact of Caesar Act sanctions aimed at Assad

Syrians dread impact of Caesar Act sanctions aimed at Assad
  • Average citizens begin to experience pain as US sanctions add to privations of war and pandemic
  • Erosion of pound’s value pushes many essential commodities beyond the reach of ordinary people

LEEDS, UK: While the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests in the West monopolize the global conversation, the plight of Syria’s civilian population seems to have been all but forgotten.

Trapped in a country devastated by 10 years of civil war, the lives of ordinary Syrians are being buffeted by a collapsing currency, medicine shortages, skyrocketing inflation and deepening poverty. And, by all accounts, the worst is yet to come.

As the Caesar Act, the tough new Syria-specific US legislation, entered into force on June 17, the official exchange rate for the dollar nearly doubled, jumping from 704 to 1,256 Syrian pounds.

The previous day, the black-market value had fallen sharply, with 2,950 Syrian pounds — instead of 2,850 — fetching $1.

The Caesar Act seeks not just to prevent members of President Bashar Assad’s inner circle from continuing to profit from the war, but also to hold them accountable for crimes against humanity.

While the ultimate objective may be to cut off Assad from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia and force him to share power with the opposition, regular people in Syria (and Lebanon) are already feeling the pinch.

Syrians in Suwayda chant anti-government slogans as they protest the deteriorating economy and corruption. (AFP)

The Syrian exchange rate has been fluctuating since the beginning of June, forcing many shops in Damascus to put up the shutters as it becomes difficult for traders to set prices.

The latest shockwaves come even as the full impact of the coronavirus crisis on the economy is yet to be felt.

R.K., 54, a working-class mother of three, said she was sent home when the lockdowns started in March without her last salary.

Hyperinflation and an eroding currency mean a normal weekly wage now lasts three days for some Syrians. (AFP)

“If not for the money I received from friends abroad, I have no idea how my family would’ve survived, especially with my son being badly injured and my two daughters unemployed,” she told Arab News.

“We used my husband’s last paycheck to pay the rent, and were left with only a few potatoes and no cash.”

M.H., a 30-year-old resident of Damascus who works in drama productions, complained about the pernicious effects of stagnant and meager wages on top of an eroding currency and hyperinflation.

A displaced Syrian girl waits for customers bringing chickpeas to grind for a fee, at the Washukanni camp for the internally displaced in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province on May 10, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

“My salary lasted only a week or 10 days before the coronavirus lockdown. Now, although the lockdown has ended in Damascus, my salary barely lasts three days,” she told Arab News.

Referring to the Caesar Act, whose sanctions provisions are now fully in effect, she said she has no idea what to expect other than that “definitely, there will be no substantial pay raise.”



- 44% Fall in Syrian pound’s value before sanctions

- 3x Rise in food prices in Syria in one year

M.H. summed up the prevailing mood of doom and gloom thus: “I suggest, instead of all these sanctions, which are slowly draining life out of people in Syria, how about they execute us by firing squad?”

Reacting to the situation more matter-of-factly, Amina F., 31, a Damascus-based content writer and e-marketing professional, said: “Proactive measures should have been taken to mitigate the effects of the Caesar Act.”

The Syrian capital probably does not even typify the worst impact of the economic crisis. Deteriorating living conditions left residents of Suwayda, a government-controlled region mainly populated by Druze, with no option but to take to the streets earlier this month in large numbers.

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on March 5, 2020 shows President Bashar Assad speaking during an interview with Russia Today in Damascus. (AFP/File Photo)

In its “Syria m-VAM” survey report, released in April, the World Food Program (WFP) noted that “the availability of food in markets is diminishing and prices are rising as a result of the depreciation of the Syrian pound.”

The report tallied the losses caused by the forced suspension of many economic activities, as well as the partial curfews imposed by the government to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The report said the restrictions took their toll on jobs and earnings, with 67 percent of households interviewed in Suwayda reporting the loss of one or more sources of income.

A woman walks past shops at the main market of the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province on May 19, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

Assad issued a decree on June 11 firing Prime Minister Imad Khamis and naming Hussein Arnous, the water resources minister, as his successor.

The order did not cite any specific reason for the dismissal of Khamis, who had been appointed to the top job in 2016.

Just days earlier, in a post on his official Facebook account, Ghassan Fattoum, a former head of the Syria Journalists Union, wrote: “It is strange that there are still those who import and experiment with solutions in hopes of finding the right solution, but we did not and will not reach (a solution) if we continue to churn out a traditional vision that lacks creative solutions for managing the state’s resources in an optimal way.”

People shop for produce at al-Shaalan market in Syria's capital Damascus on June 10, 2020. (AFP)

Kevin DeJesus, assistant professor at the John Hazen White College of Arts and Sciences at Johnson and Wales University, said he has no doubt that “Syria’s already vulnerable population will suffer further” due to the Caesar Act.

“We’ll witness a deepening and more complex crisis in the country as these sanctions will have economic and humanitarian repercussions,” he told Arab News.

“As time marches on, the effects of this crisis will mirror the dire humanitarian effects of the US sanctions strategy in Iraq, which devastated civilian life while Saddam Hussein retained power.”

People wave Syrian national flags and pictures of President Bashar al-Assad as they gather for a demonstration in support of Assad and against US sanctions on the country, at the Umayyad Square in the centre of the capital Damascus on June 11, 2020. (AFP)

Not even the deadly coronavirus pandemic prompted the West to lift or ease sanctions targeting the Assad regime.

If there is a compelling new case for the same governments to walk their policy back, it has yet to be made by Damascus.

The European Commission published on May 12 a report on its official website that ruled out any negative impact on Syria’s medical response to COVID-19.


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

“EU sanctions do not prohibit the export to Syria of respirators, disinfectants, hand sanitizers or detergents used to respond to COVID-19,” the report said, adding that traders need to make sure that these goods “will not be used for military purposes or internal repression.”

Syrian Health Minister Nizar Yazigi said the Caesar Act will impede the supply of medical equipment and medicines for chronic diseases by not exempting the Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade, which is responsible for importing medicines.

At the same time, he added: “There is no shortage of any drug substance (and) although there might be a shortage of certain brands, there are alternatives.”

Syrians walk past a second-hand clothes at shop in front of a flea market in the capital Damascus on May 17, 2020, amid severe economic crisis that has been compounded by a coronavirus lockdown. (AFP/File Photo)

Whatever the truth, residents of Damascus have been complaining of medicine shortages since early June, prompting some activists to start a Facebook group titled “Together better,” whose members share the medicines they have but do not use and are willing to give away.

The “Syria m-VAM” report of April noted that “only 57 public hospitals are functioning and there are significant shortages of trained health workers.”

Against a backdrop of what looks like a looming humanitarian crisis, DeJesus believes the tide will turn against the US sanctions.

Syrian pounds are pictured at a currency exchange shop in the town of Sarmada in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, on June 15, 2020. (AFP)

“The world will grow alarmed at the deepening hunger, unemployment, collapse of social structures and, crucially, the inability of the large Syrian diaspora to send remittances and development resources to people back home,” he said.

On a geopolitical level, he added, a year from now the US will have further ceded influence to China and Russia.

“Criminal syndicates and black-market economies will flourish, and the network around the Syrian president, which has protected his power, will only hold tighter to that power as they weather this considerable, but not insurmountable, challenge,” DeJesus said.

Syrians walk in old Damascus in front of a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, on June 16, 2020. - The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, a US law that aims to sanction any person who assists the Syrian government or contributes to the country's reconstruction, is to come into force on June 17. (AFP)

Camille Otrakji, a Syrian-Canadian analyst, believes the Caesar sanctions will not force Russia to abandon Syria.

“To fully reinstate its superpower status, Russia will need a diplomatic success like a deal to end the decade-long war in Syria,” he told Arab News.

“The Trump administration is saying, both publicly and privately, that it’s interested in a deal, but some US officials are insisting on terms that the authorities in Damascus aren’t willing to accommodate.

“A withdrawal of all foreign troops — except those of Russia — is one possibility. Iran understands that a deal would have to include some degree of attenuation of its presence in Syria.”

Looking to the future, Otrakji said: “There are two significant milestones to watch within the next year: The US presidential elections in November 2020, and the Syrian presidential elections in July 2021.”




What is the Caesar Act?

The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which entered into force on June 17, 2020, is a US legislation that sanctions the Syrian government, including President Bashar Assad, for war crimes. It is named after “Caesar,” a Syrian military forensic photographer who documented torture of civilians by the regime.

Lebanon govt hopes collapse amid heated exchanges

Lebanon govt hopes collapse amid heated exchanges
Updated 52 min 38 sec ago

Lebanon govt hopes collapse amid heated exchanges

Lebanon govt hopes collapse amid heated exchanges
  • Aoun has demanded a third of all Cabinet seats, effectively giving his team veto power over government decisions

BEIRUT: Efforts to form a government and end the political stalemate gripping Lebanon reached a dead-end on Wednesday amid heated exchanges between President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

After Aoun’s political team, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), an ally of Hezbollah, announced that it had rejected Berri’s initiative to form a new government, the parliamentary speaker responded with a strongly worded statement accusing the Lebanese president of doing “what he has no constitutional right to do” by insisting on the blocking third in the government.

Aoun has demanded a third of all Cabinet seats, effectively giving his team veto power over government decisions.

Berri said that he had put forward the initiative “to help the Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri,” and accused Aoun of backing out of a pledge to support the formation of a new government.

“The president has no constitutional right to even one minister. He does not participate in voting, so how can he indirectly have votes?” Berri asked.

“The country is collapsing, institutions are deteriorating, and the people are suffering,” he added.

Addressing Aoun, the parliamentary speaker said: “You openly say that you do not want Hariri as prime minister. This is not your right; the decision to assign him is not yours, and the Parliament has voiced its decision loud and clear.”

In response, Aoun’s office issued a statement criticizing “statements and positions from various officials interfering in the process of forming a government.”

The statement also highlighted what it claimed were “abuses and direct targeting of the powers of the president.”

With hopes of a new government dashed, government and private sector trade unions called for a strike on Thursday to rescue Lebanon from the political deadlock and threat of economic collapse.

According to political observers, Aoun’s team prefers to keep the caretaker government in place to allow the country’s affairs to be run by the Baabda Palace and through the Supreme Defense Council, chaired by Aoun.

MP Mohammed Al-Hajjar told Arab News: “We are going through a very difficult stage. The president and the FPM do not value the constitution and are insisting on obstructing the formation of the government, taking the Lebanese people hostage for their personal interests.”

He said that it is clear Aoun and his political team want a government that is subject to their decisions until presidential elections are held.

Al-Hajjar said that Hezbollah “is standing idly by and this is unacceptable.”

He added that Hezbollah could “facilitate the formation of the government by putting pressure on its ally, but it has another agenda.”

Meanwhile, Charles Jabbour, head of the Lebanese Forces’ Media and Communication Service, said that while Hezbollah wants to protect its ally Aoun and his political team, the FPM is dissatisfied with Hezbollah’s position.

“This was revealed by direct statements made by FPM officials against Hezbollah,” he said.

Jabbour said that Hezbollah is “no longer a major force in this field. It is politically paralyzed and unable to do anything.”

However, he voiced concerns that the political impasse would worsen.

“There is a struggle over power and political positions, and cooperation with Aoun’s team is impossible,” he said.

Yemenis demand end to Houthi siege of Taiz as part of peace plans

Yemenis demand end to Houthi siege of Taiz as part of peace plans
Updated 59 min 24 sec ago

Yemenis demand end to Houthi siege of Taiz as part of peace plans

Yemenis demand end to Houthi siege of Taiz as part of peace plans
  • Residents of the besieged southern Yemeni city of Taiz and human rights activists said, the Houthis should stop their military operations and continued shelling of the city
  • Yemeni activist Abdullah Al-Sharabe: Ending the siege of Taiz unconditionally is the demand of all Yemenis, and no one opposes this human desire except the Houthis

ALEXANDRIA: Yemen human rights activists, politicians, journalists, and residents of Taiz have demanded that government and international mediators include the lifting of the city’s siege by Iran-backed Houthis in any peace initiative to end the war in the country.

Fearing being shut out of the current UN-brokered peace initiative that largely focused on Sanaa, residents of the besieged southern Yemeni city and human rights activists said the Houthis should stop their military operations and continued shelling of the city’s densely populated districts under any deal to bring the conflict to a close.

In a tweet as part of an online campaign to focus world attention on the Taiz siege, Yemeni activist Abdullah Al-Sharabe said: “Ending the siege of Taiz unconditionally is the demand of all Yemenis, and no one opposes this human desire except the Houthi criminals who imposed the siege.”

According to Yemeni and UN officials, and Western diplomats, the UN-brokered peace initiative calls for an immediate nationwide ceasefire, the reopening of Sanaa airport, the lifting of restrictions on Hodeidah port, and the resumption of peace talks between the Yemeni government and the Houthis.

But Taiz residents claim too much focus has been placed on easing restrictions in Houthi-controlled areas without including the Houthi siege as one of the peace conditions.

However, UN Yemen envoy spokeswoman, Ismini Palla, told Arab News that the Houthis would lift their siege of Taiz at the same time as the warring factions put into place a ceasefire.

“The proposed nationwide ceasefire in that plan aims not only to halt all forms of fighting but also result in the opening of main roads connecting the country from north to south, including Taiz, for the free movement of civilians, commercial goods, and humanitarian aid,” she said.

The Yemeni government said it would not agree to any peace plan that did not include lifting the siege of Taiz and removing Houthi checkpoints from Yemeni cities.

“Opening roads, ensuring freedom of movement for citizens, and lifting the siege on cities, especially the city of Taiz, are among the basic issues that the government puts at the forefront of its priorities,” the Yemeni Foreign Ministry said.

Facing stiff resistance from army troops and resistance fighters in the city, the Houthis have imposed a siege on Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, since early 2015, in the process disrupting the distribution of vital humanitarian and medical assistance to thousands of hungry residents and turning a deaf ear to international calls to lift the blockade.

At the same time, the group has reportedly deployed snipers near its checkpoints to shoot any residents trying to enter or leave government-controlled areas of the city.

Speaking to Arab News from Taiz, Aqmar, a housewife, said people had been forced to use dangerous and unpaved roads to get food and medicines into the city and that the Houthi siege had pushed up transportation fares and exacerbated the suffering of the people.

“We travel only when there is an extreme necessity as bus fares are between 10,000 Yemeni rials ($40) and 15,000 rials per passenger,” she added.

She pointed out that over the years the siege had gone on, the Houthis had clamped down on freedoms of movement and that her sick grandmother who lived in a rural area outside of Taiz had died while on her way to the city to receive medical treatment.

Local rights groups claim Houthi shelling of the city has killed and wounded thousands of civilians over the past six years. Taiz Human Rights Center has put the civilian death toll from Houthi missile and artillery strikes at 1,462, including 443 children and 180 women, with 8,996 people left wounded.

Why Egypt’s Hamas policy changed after Israeli-Gaza conflict

Why Egypt’s Hamas policy changed after Israeli-Gaza conflict
Updated 16 June 2021

Why Egypt’s Hamas policy changed after Israeli-Gaza conflict

Why Egypt’s Hamas policy changed after Israeli-Gaza conflict
  • El-Sisi pledges half a billion dollars to rebuild besieged enclave after Cairo plays key role in brokering a ceasefire
  • Expert says country’s policy toward Gaza and official Egyptian relationship with Hamas are two different things

GAZA CITY: During the recent Israeli conflict with Gaza, a shift in Egyptian policy was evident in President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s pledge of half a billion dollars to rebuild the besieged enclave.
The unprecedented visit of the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service, Abbas Kamel, to Gaza, as an official envoy of El-Sisi, came as a major indication of the change in Cairo’s policy toward Hamas. 
The relationship deteriorated following the overthrow of former Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2013.
Egypt played a key role in brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas on May 21 following 11 days of cross-border fighting last month that left a trail of destruction with more than 250 dead and hundreds wounded. 
Cairo opened the Rafah crossing to dozens of Egyptian vehicles that entered Gaza to remove the rubble of destroyed buildings and pave the way for the reconstruction process. In addition, Cairo is also supplying goods to Gaza in light of strict Israeli restrictions.
However, Mukhaimer Abu Saada, professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, differentiates between the Egyptian policy toward Gaza and the official Egyptian relationship with Hamas.
He said Egypt’s role in Gaza is strategic due to the factors of history and geography. As for the country’s relationship with Hamas, it falls within the framework of “political tactics” to serve both sides.
Abu Saada believes the shift that appeared in the Egyptian policy toward Gaza rulers Hamas would not have taken place “without the green light from the US administration” following American President Joe Biden’s first phone call to El-Sisi. 
“Egypt and Hamas are beneficiaries of this transformation,” Abu Saada told Arab News. 
“Hamas, which has suffered greatly politically and financially after the years of estrangement that followed the overthrow of the late President Mursi, is keen to develop its relationship with the Egyptian regime.”
As for Egypt, Abu Saada said, it adheres to its position as a major regional player in the Palestinian arena, being the historical sponsor of Palestinian issues.
At the same time, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is not completely satisfied with the current Egyptian policy toward Gaza and the country’s openness to Hamas, he said, adding that this may be one of the main reasons behind the dialogue setback that was supposed to be launched in Cairo last Saturday.
“The PA, which has sought over the past four years to besiege Hamas politically and financially by imposing sanctions on Gaza, does not want Hamas to exploit the recent Israeli conflict in its favor through the Egyptian gate,” Abu Saada said.
Following Mursi’s ouster, the Hamas-Egypt ties deteriorated to the point that it was suggested in the Egyptian media that Hamas has supported the Salafists in Sinai and helped them carry out attacks in Cairo.
Ibrahim Al-Madhoun, a political analyst close to Hamas, believes that Egypt has a great opportunity to regain its regional weight. He also thinks Hamas is ready to identify with the Egyptian side if its demands are met, especially the lifting of the siege on Gaza and the cessation of Israeli attacks on Jerusalem.
Al-Madhoun does not see Egypt making a U-turn on Hamas, but he says it has raised the degree of its interest, concentration, and ability to move in vital files.
Hani Al-Basous, professor of political science and international relations, said the current Egyptian tactic with Hamas is based on recognizing it as a fait accompli. He said the Palestinian force has great weight, gained popular Arab momentum after the latest conflict, and it should be dealt with with new mechanisms and not with a new political orientation.

Italian, Tunisian presidents meet to discuss immigration

Italian, Tunisian presidents meet to discuss immigration
Updated 16 June 2021

Italian, Tunisian presidents meet to discuss immigration

Italian, Tunisian presidents meet to discuss immigration
  • Mattarella says conditions in Africa need to improve so migrants are not forced to make desperate decisions
  • Saied blames migrant problem in Mediterranean region on an unfair ‘distribution of wealth’ 

ROME: As the illegal migrant situation in the Mediterranean Sea continues to escalate — nearly 2,000 people have landed on the island of Lampedusa since Sunday — the presidents from Italy and Tunisia met in Rome to work on a solution.

Security policies “are necessary to fight against human trafficking”, but at the same time “conditions for development must be created in Africa so that people there do not feel compelled to risk their lives and emigrate to look for work or escape hunger,” Italian President Sergio Mattarella said during the meeting with Tunisian President Kais Saied.

Immigration was the key issue during Saied’s official visit to Italy, said Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi.

“Tunisia is a strategic partner in the Mediterranean region on immigration issues and Libya,” Di Maio said in a press conference.  

Most of the migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa depart from Tunisia and Libya. Over the past few years, Italy has provided both countries with equipment, resources, and ships in an attempt to thwart migrant crossings. But they continue to arrive on the shores of Lampedusa, located 105 miles southwest of Sicily, and on other tiny islands scattered across the Mediterranean.

“We must ask ourselves why a mother accepts for herself and her son the risk of becoming food for fish and then maybe to be exploited,” Saied said after the meeting with Mattarella. 

“The problem is that there is no fair distribution of wealth between the north and the south of the world.”

In an interview with RAI, the Italian state broadcaster’s news, Saied remembered how it was the Italians who used to immigrate to his country. The roles may be reversed now but the motive remains the same. 

“Those who migrate are in search of fortune, just as they were in the past,” he said.

Mattarella reaffirmed to his Tunisian counterpart “the great friendship that binds Italy to Tunisia.” He recalled “the great friendship and primary partnership” between the two countries who share “the values of democracy, a geographical proximity, and some common history.”

He also stressed that peacemaking and stabilization in Libya represent a priority of Italian foreign policy. 

“In order to achieve this, mercenaries and foreign troops must leave the country. Libya must be left to the Libyans,” Mattarella was quoted to Arab News by a source in the Italian administration.

While in Rome, Saied also met with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese. According to sources in the prime minister’s office, more assistance has been offered to Tunisia, but more “attention and effort in contrasting illegal migration will have to be enforced.”

Rights groups urge EU to protect life on sea route from Libya

Rights groups urge EU to protect life on sea route from Libya
Updated 16 June 2021

Rights groups urge EU to protect life on sea route from Libya

Rights groups urge EU to protect life on sea route from Libya
  • Estimated 20,000 people have died or disappeared in central Mediterranean in last decade
  • Human Rights Watch: ‘People are drowning while European leaders squabble’

LONDON: Leading rights groups have called on the EU to protect lives on the main Mediterranean route between Libya and Europe. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) on Wednesday published an action plan to promote safe pathways on the precarious route from North Africa.

The 20-point plan gives guidance on how the EU could ensure safe and predictable disembarking opportunities and relocation responses for people rescued. 

“It is shameful and tragic that EU countries can’t agree on something as fundamental as saving lives at sea,” said Judith Sunderland, HRW’s associate Europe and Central Asia director. “People are drowning while European leaders squabble.”

An estimated 20,000 people have died or disappeared in the central Mediterranean in the last decade. According to the UN, some 664 people have died or gone missing so far this year. 

HRW accused the EU of “withdrawing responsibility,” noting that the bloc has since March 2019 been withdrawing its ships from areas where unseaworthy boats carrying migrants and refugees are most likely to be. 

Libya’s Coast Guard has intercepted and returned to the country more than 11,700 people this year, with up to 1,000 migrants returned on June 12 alone.

People recovered and returned to Libya face being detained in “nightmarish detention centers and experiencing abysmal conditions, violence, and forced labor,” HRW said.

It added that the EU should abandon its policy of assisting the return of migrants and refugees to Libya, and urgently adopt one that ensures migrants are relocated to a safe place. 

HRW called for new relocation arrangements so EU member states can share the responsibility of migration from Libya more equally.

EU heads of state are expected to discuss migration policy at the next European Council meeting on June 24-25 in Brussels.